“Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”; freedom of movement post-Brexit

“Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting,” sings Youssou N’Dour, in my all-time favourite version of Chimes of Freedom. This is Bob Dylan’s poetry at his best; this version gives me chills. And what a line-up! Tracy Chapman, Sting, Bruce Springsteen… More of the verse reads:

Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

I am not the refugee “on an unarmed road of flight” that Dylan wrote about. I have a safe, warm place I can legally return to whenever I want. I enjoy a degree of mobility enviable by any standard, simply by having a British passport. But the fact remains that rights will be lost; we will be worse off. And I am politically homeless.

The full implications of this will probably only become understood as time goes by. Yet I can already tell that I will look back on mid-2016 as the time when all my priorities changed – or at least, became more focused. It was truly a turning point in my personal identity, and I’ll look back on it as a defining moment of my adulthood.

Nationality barely came into my sense of self growing up, and even then it was more out of embarrassment at the behaviour of drunken Brits in Mediterranean resorts, but Brexit has brought out a bizarre kind of patriotism in me: I feel so appalled, so sad, that I feel the need to defend the good things about the country now. “No, really! Half the country didn’t want this,” I find myself protesting. I feel crushingly sad for my parents, the Latvians and Poles and Hungarians that my father works with; my university friends, almost none of them British but all of whom, like me, found a home in London; all those who came to Britain full of hope and now feel unwelcome, and alienated from everything they thought it stood for.

The Brexit vote catalysed my plans to move abroad to a significant degree.

I sense that I am becoming even more fragmented. Like Britain itself, I am divided, with friends dotted across several continents, and barely any of them left in the city I call home, of my birth, where I studied: London. Like many people, I’ve lost trust in my “leaders” and the government which is supposed to protect the best interests of its citizens. What will it take to feel comfortable again?

For the countless, confused, accused, misused strung out ones at worst
And for every hung out person in the whole wide universe
We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashin’

The only silver lining is feeling even more compelled to engage politically, and feeling that there is truly something to fight for. At no time do I feel accurately represented other than on James O’Brien’s show on LBC. It recently surpassed one million listeners, and I’m not surprised. I pay for a subscription to LBC podcasts, purely for his show: there is nothing I like more after the breaking of a juicy Brexit story than switching on LBC at 10:00 GMT and listening to James’s inevitable unpicking of the dire situation. He’s become something of a hero for Remainers, refusing to overlook factual inaccuracies about the EU, demolishing the impossible demands of the government, and taking down Brexiteers who can’t back up any of their arguments, time and time again.

Freedom of movement is the right that my British friends and I feel most anguished about losing. No matter how much I’d like to live my life without thinking about Brexit, it’s undeniable that its long shadow casts far over every major decision I make. Where and what and when to study, live, and travel are all informed by the 29 March 2019 deadline.

I am anxious about gathering paperwork, anything that can prove I’ve been living abroad since just after the Brexit vote. My employers are registered in London, Amsterdam, and Berlin respectively; I travel across the Schengen area regularly for work; I am based in Paris now, but will be moving soon. There isn’t much of a blueprint for this kind of lifestyle without the enabler of freedom of movement ensured by EU membership. I feel naturally compelled to keep moving, driven by a desire to experience as much of the world as I can, and this is accelerated by the countdown to Brexit, when my right to frictionless movement will be scuppered. Yet I may also want to make a more permanent home someday. I have often thought of living in Sweden, Spain, Italy. Do I have to choose now? Should I stay in France to build up residency rights? I know a lot of my friends are thinking the same way. We have no answers.

So, condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting. Drifting around this wonderful continent is a pleasure in itself. The work of Patrick Leigh Fermor and other such writers is a testament to this. But overshadowed by Brexit, it becomes an egg timer. The world has changed. The sand drips, drips, drips towards the Brexit deadline, and my mind is ever more occupied with the shrinking options.


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